Barriers to Anglo-Catholic pilgrimage
THERE ARE MANY members of the Church of England who are in an appallingly difficult position: they feel that their own Church has been taken away from them by the actions of its General Synod, and that they are in a kind of ecclesiastical limbo. Whatever ecumenical advances may appear to have been made in recent years seem to have brought them little benefit when the crisis finally dawned. There is still the gulf between denominations in England that there always was.
For those Anglicans who
consider themselves Catholic Christians, there has been a particular sense of disappointment. They belong to a tradition which has always existed within the Church of England, which holds that Church to be a local expression of the Catholic faith, which is centred (in the West) on Rome. Just as Orthodoxy in the East is an authentic part of historic Christendom without accepting papal jurisdiction, so too was the Church of England an authentic vehicle for Catholic sacraments and teaching.
Conversion to another church was considered by many to be a self-indulgent luxury, and the work of bringing about unity from within not only more important, but a particular vocation within the context of English history.
Such a position has inevitably meant living with compromises of various kinds, in the hope and anticipation of restored church unity. It has meant sharing church life with people of many different persuasions and outlooks, but always on the basis of certain essentials: not least, the unimpaired holy orders handed down from St Augustine, and from the early church of these islands which preceded him and his mission of 597AD. Anglican Catholics consider themselves to be priests in exactly the same sense as their neighbouring Roman Catholic parish priests: and to be exercising precisely the same ministry and vocation. A proportion express this by using, contrary to Anglican canon law, the Roman Missal and the Divine Office.
Make no mistake, there is a very great sense of longing for unity with the wider Catholic Church, and a strong sense of being already a part of it, although necessarily living out one's vocation as a Catholic in a rather attenuated form, in an unsympathetic environment.
To those who have lived out such a vocation, the conviction that Anglican holy orders are every bit as valid and efficacious as those conferred by any part of the Catholic Church has always been a precious lifeline and assurance. Therefore, the decision by General Synod to render even that aspect of our heritage subject to grave doubt, by permitting woman to be ordained, came as a debilitating blow.
Where could Catholic Anglicans now turn, with the ground cut away from beneath their
feet? For many the answer seemed at first simple: to admit that the Anglican experiment had proved at last a failure, or that God's purpose for it was now at an end. The logical answer was to look to the Roman Catholic Church, whose communion had always been their goal, for adoption and a new ecclesial family.
Resolution of their difficulties now appears as elusive as the ARCIC holy grail, and likely to take as long. The delay from month to month, and from year to year, adds to the sense of disillusion which began with the Synod in November 1992. For lay people there was the prospect of being received with their clergy, as wild talk of "unlace churches" and even of "personal prelatures" swept the media. Anglican priests who were unmarried began to be received, but not in the expected numbers. To those who have always held on to the belief that they are validly ordained as Catholic priests, the prospect of being ordained afresh has proved to be a particularly difficult act of renunciation.
For almost two years now, there have been rumours of a better understanding of the needs of Catholic Anglicans, being approved by the Vatican and implemented in England. Some Roman Catholic bishops have welcomed Anglican priests with tremendous personal warmth and charity and some have gone out of their way to discourage. Those who speak French can expect a swift fresh start in certain French dioceses, as two have lately discovered, in weeks rather than months or years. But those who have been received and sent to seminaries in England mostly still remain there, their future uncertain, despite many years of training and experience.
The difficulty is particularly acute for married priests. The Roman Catholic Church accepts the orders of married priests in a number of churches, and freely admits that celibacy is not essential to the sacrament of orders, but a discipline adopted in the West. A small number of married convert clergy have been received into the Roman Catholic priesthood in recent years, including well-known figures such as Peter Cornwell
and latterly Bishop Graham
Leonard. If it can be done for a few, why not as a general principle? But the decision has to be taken by Rome, not by the hierarchies here in Britain, and the decision seems interminably long in coming, for those whose lives are slipping by in a Church of England which looks increasingly foreign to them.
It has to be said that even if a more relaxed approach is finally adopted towards unmarried Anglican clergy, any expectations which have been aroused for the reception of married clergy as Roman Catholic priests are unrealistic, and as things stand in the Roman Catholic Church itself, unfair to the many priests who have reluctantly accepted celibacy as a condition of ordination and unfair to those who have resigned in order to marry.
It would involve a change to the ethos of English Roman Catholicism of a magnitude approximately equal to that of ordaining women in the Church of England, if there were to be a sudden influx of married priests exercising a full parish ministry. It would be impossible to sustain the claim that celibacy is necessary to a priestly vocation. Here, surely, lies the reason for the delay where married Anglican priests are concerned: and they are surely deserving of a double measure of pity, unable to leave the Anglican frying-pan, for the fire of someone else's debate on celibacy. t Rev Stephen Trott u the Anglican Rector of Pitsford and Boughton.